Now reading: poetry, nature, true crime, and J.S. Bach

I’ve just finished a collection of poetry, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. It’s not what you might expect, that is, a gathering of independent poems. Instead, the collection tells a connected story about townspeople pretending to be deaf in an act of resistance to foreign soldiers occupying their country. The first poem elicits the triggering event, which takes place during an outdoor puppet show. Public assemblies are prohibited. When soldiers show up demanding the crowd disperse, things happen and a soldier shoots and kills a deaf boy in the front row. It’s a remarkable poem, and remarkable storytelling throughout the collection. I know poetry doesn’t resonate with the majority of readers, but I recommend giving Deaf Republic a chance, a look, for it’s not only a profound story but also one that happens to be quite timely, given current circumstances in the Ukraine. Although the occupied country in the poems isn’t specified, the author Ilya Kaminsky was born in the Ukrainian seaport Odessa, in 1977, during the years of Soviet Union control. He’s now an American citizen. He published Deaf Republic in 2019.

Michael McCarthy’s “deeply affecting memoir and heartbreaking account of ecological impoverishment” has been sitting on my reading table for three years. (That descriptive quote is from Helen Macdonald, author of the terrific memoir H Is for Hawk.) Acting on my New Year’s resolution to diminish the stacks on my reading table, I’ve pulled it out to start reading this weekend. I don’t know what it is about The Moth Snowstorm that, over time, has attracted me. I first went through a dance of borrowing it from the library and returning it unread — twice I did that — and then buying it and letting it sit, waiting among the want-to-reads. Clearly, the insistence, as often happens with books, means something, and I believe it’s the mix of memoir and my love of the natural world that’s creating the stickiness. Or perhaps the inviting first line of the book has simply demanded I read further:

In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sin, my mother’s mind fell apart.

Catch the Sparrow A Search for a Sister and the Truth of Her Murder by Rachel Rear came to my attention via an email query from the book’s publicist at Bloomsbury (one of my favorite publishing houses). I’m not an avid true crime reader, but something inside me said to pay attention, reinforced by the author’s journalism background and the rave pre-publication reviews, so I requested a copy. As I’m writing this, I’m more than halfway through the book, just having started it yesterday. It’s immersive and unputdownable, this astute inquiry into the disappearance and murder of the author’s stepsister Stephanie Kupchynsky. Rachel Rear engages us with concise yet heartfelt prose, ominous facts coupled with surprising insights, and a perfect pacing, taking us through a complex investigation spanning more than two decades and involving district attorneys, police, suspects, and Stephanie’s family, friends, lovers, and acquaintances, as well as corruption in the police department. Rear didn’t know Stephanie, a violinist who taught music in public schools — Rear’s mother and Stephanie’s father married after the disappearance — but she knew the story and couldn’t shake its presence.

James Runcie has written a new novel. You may recognize his name, if you’re a fan of the TV series Grantchester or his books the Sidney Chambers Mysteries, a.k.a. the Grantchester Mysteries, which the TV series is based on. (View the books on Bloomsbury’s U.K. site here.) The new novel has nothing to do with Sidney Chambers, rather Johann Sebastian Bach, and it’s what’s up next for me, after Catch the Sparrow. The story takes place in 1727, focused on a 13-year-old boy mourning the death of his mother, enduring a new school where he’s bullied by classmates, and finding support from the school’s cantor, Johann Sebastian Bach, who recognizes the boy’s musical capabilities. The Great Passion has received rave forecasts and stars, but what draws me to it foremost is that it’s a story about music and grief as told through Bach’s writing of the St. Matthew Passion. At least, that’s how the novel is described. The press release says Runcie draws on his 1997 documentary about Bach for the BBC and subsequent work about the composer and his famous oratorio, which I’ve heard but don’t know much about. The Great Passion is set to be released March 15.

2 thoughts on “Now reading: poetry, nature, true crime, and J.S. Bach

    1. The press release for the book says Runcie drew on his 1997 documentary about Bach for the BBC and his subsequent radio play in 2016 and stage play in 2018 about him. I’m not familiar with any of these endeavors, but it sounds like Runcie has had Bach under his microscope for a while.


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